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Fall 2010

On Erving Goffman

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Adam Phillips

Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) of “finding from experience” that “all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of.” It is something worth noticing, a brief description of what a culture is, and how it works. Circumstancing is not a verb anymore, but sociology—always the poor relative of the post-Enlightenment social sciences, and not a popular discipline anymore—was a kind of science of circumstancing. Goffman, as a sociologist, was interested in the ordeals of everyday life, the circumstances in which we expose ourselves, the shame lurking in the simplest act. It was the actions of a certain kind that preoccupied him, those that were at odds with prevailing norms, and that can consolidate these norms by being at odds with them; people with a stigma were Goffman’s representative men (and women), people who, one way or another, had a lot of explaining to do, or to avoid doing.

But unlike most sociologists, Goffman was also interested in writing as an action of a certain kind—and in what might be called, if it didn’t sound so pretentious, the poetry of circumstancing. No sociologist has written with the mischievous wit and fervent logic of Goffman. Like William Empson, or Mary Douglas, or Roland Barthes, Goffman always seemed to have his own unique sentences, a sensibility and a style rather than a method (stigma and style, he made you feel, were somehow related). “Any accurately improper move can poke through the thin sleeve of immediate reality,” he wrote in Asylums, describing, among several strange things, the often uncanny effect of his own writing.

There is no circumstance in which approval or disapproval is not the issue—“it is possible for all of us to become fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might imagine us to be”—and no action in which exposure isn’t the name of the game. Goffman didn’t want the writing of sociology to be exempt from the pressures it described; what you can make of whatever it is that singles you out and what you can make of whatever it is that doesn’t is clearly not only a question for sociology. But what Goffman did for sociology was to make it sound as though a method could be the pretext for a style; that an impersonal discipline was the best place for eccentricity; that you could learn about rules in a way that made them more like instruments than obstacles. The “accurately improper move” reminds us that unacceptable behavior is more of a skill than a failing, that we are never out of control—we just sometimes prefer to do forbidden (or embarrassing) things.

For Goffman social life is action-packed—it is a move which pokes through, which may be a move in a game, but may not be—and stagey: our bafflement as conventional, as theatrical, as our shame. So stigma and embarrassment, which Goffman writes about so rivetingly—all those situations in which we are wrong-footed in spite of ourselves, or because of ourselves—reveal more about the rules of our so-called social life than about our failure to abide by them. It is not that our social bonds are precarious but that the precariousness is the bond (“face-to-face interaction in any culture,” Goffman wrote, “seems to require just those capacities that flustering seems to destroy”). When someone is ashamed, the impossible standard is exposed; when someone is surprised, it is his or her expectations that turn out to be the surprising thing. As Goffman writes in Stigma, “a double-handed amputee with hooks watching a movie may cause a sexually forward female sitting next to him to scream in terror over what her hand had suddenly found.”

“The self,” Goffman wrote in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, “is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature and die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented.” This is not the same as saying that there is no such thing as a self, or that the self is, as they say, an effect of language; it is more like saying that the self, like an actor, is the dramatic effect he has, and that effect is a consequence of, is called up by, the drama of the scene. There is a scene which is a setting for a drama, and this is called the social world (a good sociological phrase); our selves are dramatic effects arising from this scene. Drama has its conventions, but they create something diffuse. The self, then, unbounded by its conventions. Confined and confounded, but also unbounded and on the loose. This was Goffman’s sly vision. And not only of sociology.



Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst who lives in London. His two latest books are On Balance, a book of essays, and (with Judith Clark) The Concise Dictionary of Dress.
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